A few months ago, I appeared on a popular Egyptian television talk show -- al-Qahira al-Youm -- that addressed front-page stories in the press. One of the questions I was asked surprised me. The Egyptian press had apparently translated a Washington Post article about President Barack Obama's private spiritual life and his regular consultation with Christian ministers. Seemingly alarmed, the host asked me to provide comment. Immediately, I saw where the question was headed. During the George W. Bush's presidency, there was considerable focus, at home and abroad, on Bush's Christian faith and the role of evangelicals in U.S. foreign policy. This played squarely into the hands of those Muslims who preferred to frame foreign-policy issues as a struggle between Islam and the "crusaders," and Obama seemed to provide a fresh start. But could Obama be instead a closet evangelical Christian?
It was not hard to deal with the question on Egyptian TV, pointing out that all presidents benefit from being recognized as men of faith and that being a Christian in the United States does not automatically provide predictions of your Middle East policy -- as is well-demonstrated by perhaps the most religious U.S. president of the 20th century, Jimmy Carter. But the very fact that this issue had to be addressed in the Arab media was itself an indication of the times, of the decline in Arab public opinion of a president who a year ago opened many hearts and minds even before he delivered a memorable and historic speech in Cairo.
It was also a reminder of how frequently the discourse about U.S. foreign policy produces blinding fog. Even among the many who never bought that Obama's Muslim father or his childhood years in a Muslim-majority country had predictable impact on his Middle East policy, some assumed that many Arabs and Muslims were bound to evaluate him on these terms. While people are bound to use any fragment of information to assess the outlook of a political leader, in the end everyone is looking for policy clues on issues that matter to them. Obama's personal history provided some early positive clues to most Arabs and Muslims -- and negative ones to Israelis -- but only as possible indicators of policy.
There is no indication that Arabs ever embraced Obama simply because of who he is. It was always about issues, not about his personal background. During the presidential campaign, in April and May of 2008, I asked a question about attitudes toward the three remaining candidates, Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton, in a poll conducted with Zogby International in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. "Who is best suited to advance Middle East peace?" Not surprisingly, McCain, whose campaign was speaking of an "Islamo-Fascist" threat, received the nod from a mere 3 percent of those polled. Clinton was favored by 13 percent and Obama by 18 percent -- separated by an amount that was not much above the margin of error. A plurality said "none of the above." This was not about Arabs seeing Obama as a "secret Muslim."
By the time Obama delivered the Cairo speech in June 2009, polls were already showing remarkable openness toward the new U.S. president. In a University of Maryland/Zogby poll conducted in April and May 2009, a plurality of the Arabs surveyed had a favorable view of Obama, while a majority expressed optimism about the prospects of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The two measures were inevitably tied. But what might not have been clear to observers is that the former was more a function of the later -- not the other way around.
Certainly, there was something of "anything but Bush" in Arab attitudes, after several years of George W. Bush being identified as the most disliked leader in the world among Arabs polled in the six countries. There was also the puzzlement about Americans electing an African-American president -- something many Arabs and others around the world hadn't believed could happen. But more than anything else, it was about the issues. They liked Obama's opposition to the Iraq war and his stated intent to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, as well as his opposition to torture and the Guantánamo Bay prison -- which many in the region saw as particularly aimed at Arabs and Muslims -- and they were heartened by his emphasis on the importance of the Arab-Israeli issue.
But contrary to conventional wisdom, Arabs never embraced Obama. In the spring 2009 poll, the overwhelming majority of those who had a favorable view of Obama expressed only a "somewhat favorable view," and in Egypt a significant number of those polled were neutral about him. And in the annual open question, "Whom among world leaders do you admire most?", Obama's name was not among the top choices. It was always about policy, and the public was adopting a wait-and-see attitude.
Like any people around the world, Arabs care about many things. But they view Washington through a limited set of issues. To most Arabs, the United States is an anchor of a political order they do not like, in all its manifestations -- authoritarianism, the declining global influence of Arab countries, the Iraq war, the war on terrorism, and the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But they don't rank issues equally when they evaluate U.S. foreign policy. And nothing ranks higher than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
We really didn't need polls to see that the mood in the region has shifted in the past year, as many experts or frequent visitors would have heard an earful on this issue with most of the complaints focused on the Israeli Palestinian issue. Certainly, in the 2010 UMD/Zogby poll, 61 percent of polled Arabs identified the Arab-Israeli conflict as the issue they are disappointed with the most in Obama's foreign policy. Obama's new tone toward Islam and Muslims was identified as the most positive policy issue, but only by 20 percent. The net result was a remarkable change in attitudes toward Obama from 45 percent favorable in 2009 to only 20 percent in 2010.